We unintentionally followed the Silk Road in reverse order – from somewhere near its western end in Tbilisi, Georgia to its eastern terminus in Xi’an, China. Although our first taste of UNESCO Silk Road sites occurred in Turkmenistan (Merv), Uzbekistan is where the Silk Road unexpectedly reaches a sophisticated tourist marketing level.
Don’t worry, we won’t bore you with a bullet list of must-see Silk Road sites. There are plenty of those in guide books and all over the internet. You can (and should) check out our short photo set of Silk Road sites in Uzbekistan.
This scavenger hunt is intended to help you get under the surface of Uzbekistan’s polished Silk Road tourist veneer which you’ll find in Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. We’ve also thrown in Nukus and Tashkent as a bonus. The list below includes some serious suggestions, as well as a few head-scratchers.
1. Nukus: The large Russian woman at the bar of the Hotel Nukus who protects female tourists from the unwanted kisses of drunken Uzbek senators.
Of course, watch out first for the (supposed) Uzbek senator who flashes his ID card and gives his room number to and makes passes at female tourists. Our Russian protectress had to virtually beat this guy away with a broom.
2. Nukus: Bathroom reading.
Take note that rooms at the Hotel Nukus come outfitted with toilet paper whose texture and finish matches that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Mildly elastic and crimped like crepe paper, this dual-purpose recycled toilet paper allows you to catch up on yesterday’s news while in the loo. If you are a bathroom reader, this stuff is for you.
3. Nukus: The Savitsky Museum, where early 20th century Soviet Avant-Garde art meets Uzbek and Karakalpak ethnography.
Donations and care have turned this place into a remarkable – and because of its somewhat remote location, under-appreciated – museum. Although names like Etcheistov, Lyssenko, Oufimtsev, Volkov, and Mazel may not jump off the page, their “Lost Period” Soviet art is worthy of consideration and makes this museum a worthwhile visit. As a bonus, the museum’s ethnography section offers a useful visual primer into Karakalpakstan and life on the Silk Road.
4. Mizdakhan: A necropolis megalopolis
This mesmerizing, sprawling cemetery appears out of the middle of nowhere just after the Turkmen-Uzbek border about 15 km away from Nukus. Although it looks like a city, no one lives here. Catch the cemetery in the late afternoon sun. Be sure to hail the taxi driver who is able to read his Koran while driving at full speed.
5. Khiva: A bank with money. Unfortunately, Uzbekistan persistently sits on the cutting edge of financial innovation by way of its vast network of banks that feature absolutely no money. Maybe you are asking yourself, “where can I find one of these fine institutions?” The answer: just about everywhere, particularly outside of Tashkent. You’ll know you are in one of them if you look around and notice that all the lights are out and a dozen or more underemployed people skulk around bleakly under an invisible blanket of control.
6. Khiva: Authenticity.
Release yourself from the confines of Khiva’s old city walls and venture outside for a refreshing moment. We did in search of a bank (see #5) and found a hope-affirming experience instead. In a grand “random act of kindness” moment, a sweet 8-months pregnant Uzbek woman running an ice cream stand and her lunch partner abandoned their table and insisted that we and our friend Dave take their place and finish their plov. They even sought out some salad and bread to round out our meal. Then, they insisted that we not pay for any of it, explaining that we were their guests.
7. Bukhara: A train ticket that looks like a paper doll cut-out.
The cashier literally cuts around the numbers in order to create the receipt, which in our case amounted to 6950 som ($5.50).
In bouts of creativity, ticket officials throw in additional “insurance fees” and other random fees ensuring that no two people will pay the same price for the exact same ticket. From our informal survey, Germans paid the least, Russians paid the most and the Americans were somewhere in the middle. Try forming your international relations dissertation around this one.
To be fair, Uzbek trains are pleasant (at least the express ones are) and represent good value for the money. As a bonus, on-board video screen entertainment includes Bollywood films, Russian pop tune videos and – bizarrely – 12-year old Russian-Uzbek belly dancers.
8. Samarkand: Mongol Rally drivers.
Sometimes it’s not about the place, but instead about the people you meet when you are there. If you find yourself in Samarkand in the heat of August, take a look for cars lined up for the Mongol Rally (hint: they will be near Bahodir’s B&B). Enjoy their stories of border crossings, police stops, bribe techniques and how to weld a car back together in the middle of the desert. Good company.
9. Shakhrisabz: A wedding.
Based on our experience and the stories of others, Shakhrisabz seems to be the place to go to catch an Uzbek wedding. You might find yourself in the midst of the wedding party, having your photo taken with the bride and groom.
Though the sites in Shakhrisabz are not breathtaking by any means, if you have an extra day, the trip from Samarkand to Shakhrisabz offers some fine mountain scenery (distinctly different than hard pan desert).
10. Tashkent: Russian-speaking Koreans.
We were surprised to hear ethnic Koreans speaking Russian to one another. Thanks to Tashkent’s local Korean population, markets have at least one aisle devoted to pickled vegetables and salads. But the real joys are the reasonably-priced Korean restaurants, where you can down bibimbap to your heart’s delight.
The Korean back-story: Stalin deported approximately 200,000 Koreans from the Russian Far East to Central Asia in 1937 on the grounds that they might be spies or traitors. There are an estimated 450,000 Koreans throughout Central Asia today.
11. Tashkent: A woman whose mini-skirt is longer than her high heels.
From a male perspective, Tashkent is surprisingly and refreshingly “cosmopolitan.” If you visit in the summertime, note that its female Russian population dresses on the scanty side.
12. Tashkent: A tourist who is sick and therefore consulting the Bristol Stool Scale.
For some reason, it seemed that absolutely everyone we’d met on the tourist trail in Tashkent had come down with some sort of stomach ailment.
For the uninitiated, the Bristol scale can be politely described as a formal feces classification tool. One group of guys running the Mongol Rally could be overheard performing squat analyses like, “Yeah, yesterday I was a six, maybe seven. Today, I think I’m hovering around four.”
13. Tashkent: The taxi driver who watches music videos of obscure 1970s American hard rock bands on a VCD screen clipped to the passenger’s side sun visor. Beware, if he senses even a modicum of interest in American rock, he will talk your ear off and keep popping in more VCDs; you’ll never reach your destination.
Though you’d probably never do this at home (if you live somewhere in the western world), if you take advantage of Tashkent’s system of informal taxis, you’ll witness a fascinating and frugal feature of its transportation landscape. Just put your arm out, wait for a car to stop, negotiate a price and hop in. Prices vary based on your nationality, your ability to speak Russian, and your gender. In our experience, starting prices for Audrey (alone) were 50% of those for Dan.
14. Tashkent: A place where you can get a decent bowl of borscht (cabbage and beet soup) and take in some Russian pole dancing. Believe it or not, there’s a restaurant for those interested. After enjoying her borscht, Audrey dragged Dan out before the show began – to save on the additional “service fees,” of course. You’ll find it a few doors away from the Korean restaurant on Glinka Street.
15. Tashkent: Exceptional Soviet architecture.
We’re not joking. Because Tashkent was virtually razed to the ground during a 1966 earthquake, it was almost entirely rebuilt in the Soviet aesthetic. Although this eventually becomes tough on the eyes, look up, down and around for Soviet style government buildings, apartments, monuments, parks, and traffic dividers. The highlight: Tashkent’s subway stations. They are beautiful and feature designs ranging from Soviet Realist mosaic to Islamic tile. Don’t miss the famed Cosmonaut station.
Where to stay:
Nukus: There are only two real options in town. Hotel Nukus is the better alternative. $10/person. Just watch out for drunk “senators” hanging outside in the evening.
Bukhara: Malikjon B&B, Sarafon Street #9. Tel: (998365)2245050 – Very close to Labi Havuz (main square). $10/person for a simple, but clean room with en suite bathroom.
Samarkand: Bahodir’s B&B, Mulokandov 132. Super-friendly hosts, good traveler environment. If you can, splurge for a room with a private bathroom ($16-$18 for a double). The shared squat toilet, besides being subject to hits and misses, turns into a sauna because of its proximity to the water heater.
Tashkent: Hotel Orzu, Ivleva Street #14 – Tel: 120 80 77/120 88 22. Friendly front desk, good breakfast, comfortable rooms and good location. $33/double (August 2007). Update, September 2008: the website says $60/double. That’s a considerable jump in price.
Where to eat:
Bukhara: Even if you’re not staying at Malikjon B&B, it’s worth a visit for dinner one evening as the hostess assembles impressive spreads. The first dinner we ate there was our best in Uzbekistan. Vegetarian options are available (ask for the eggplant salad). 5,000 som ($4) per person.
Tashkent: Across the street from Hotel Orzu, try Flamingo in a simple, pleasant outdoor garden setting. They make their “wedding” plov fresh every day. Probably the best plov we’d had and very cheap (around 1000-1500 som, depending on the size of the plate).
Tashkent has a surprisingly good network of wifi cafes. Our favorite place was Cafe Bourgeois on Shota Rustaveli Street. Not only can you get a real latte (a nice break from Nescafe) and a chicken burger here, but you’ll probably get smiles from the friendly wait-staff, too.
The best Italian food in Tashkent can be found at Bistro (Movarounnakhr 33). Grilled vegetables from a wood-fired oven offer a nice change of pace from the typical Uzbek fare and pizzas are done well. The wine isn’t bad either. The staff claim it’s Uzbek, but with a name like Classico, we’re thinking some odd Uzbek government regulation is at play. The stuff tastes rather Italian.
Good Korean food (wifi access, too) at Cocos, the Korean cafe at 13 Glinka Street (near the corner of Shota Rustaveli) and within walking distance from Hotel Orzu. Try the bibimbap, tasty and substantial enough to feed two people.
Our route through Uzbekistan can be found on the Google MyMaps below.